Alex Morrison’s diverse practice explores architecture’s role in reflecting and shaping ideologies, with an interest in how these ideologies fail and shift while the buildings embodying their beliefs live on. By analyzing architectural forms, Morrison explores how alternative narratives and histories trouble and intertwine with those prescribed by an architect. Moreover, through his interest in counterculture signifiers and facade-ism, he points to potential failings of aesthetic identification on a grand scale.
Reflecting thematically upon the fragmented nature of Vancouver’s story as a city, Morrison’s Brand New Era Social Club, his site-specific work for the Dal Grauer Substation, comments on both digital and analogue forms of representation and their importance in the construction of past narratives and contemporary reality. The multimedia work questions the nature of photography today and represents more broadly the aims of the Festival to drive photography discourse forward and encourage critical thinking and visual literacy.
Substations have historically been a boon for young architects, who could create showpieces of high-concept design that illustrated the architectural trends of that moment. Morrison’s project looks to the Dal Grauer’s surrounding neighbourhood, Vancouver’s West End, and draws on its adornment-rich and eclectic mix of architectural styles, ranging from Edwardian to postmodern, to create a three-dimensional virtual rendering. The work is a visual and material comment on the substation, referencing the building’s facadical nature as an icon of midcentury modern aesthetics and values. The Dal Grauer is mostly a presentation site, highlighting and framing the almost sublime nature of the generation of hydroelectric power. Morrison’s photomural acts much in the same way, showing how architecture both produces and frames a narrative, its architectural scale inviting the viewer to engage in a dialogue with the urban fabric around it.
The three-dimensional room that appears in Morrison’s work was rendered in Sketchup, a software marketed to architects, urban planners, and interior designers that allows users to create and navigate a virtual space from all angles. Once the room was completed, Morrison framed the angle he wished to capture and generated an image. This act mimics that of making a photograph, but speaks directly to the constructed nature of many of the images circulating today, especially those emerging from the real estate or industrial design worlds. Though outside of the traditional definition of photography (whereby photo = light and graphia = writing or inscription), Morrison’s work suggests that this definition no longer reflects the medium’s current conditions.
Like much of Morrison’s two-dimensional work, Brand New Era Social Club veers into the territory of expanded photography, as he applies a magpie-like sensibility to merging scanned, photographed, and computer-generated imagery. In combining scans from his collection of antique wallpaper books, renderings of iconic design pieces, recent memories of spaces he’s experienced while living in Brussels, and less reliable long-held sensory impressions from his youth in Vancouver and Victoria, Brand New Era Social Club imparts a generalized atmosphere that feels both strange and familiar.
If realism is an icon of truth, Morrison ventures to question the ubiquity of digital imagery and the overwhelming use of Photoshop or similar software under various guises. Through this framework, his work considers photography as a stand-in for truth and memory: what people want from art and what they need from photography. In some ways, the process used to create his image is akin to nineteenth-century portrait photography, when artists would set up a room with props and require their subjects to sit still for long periods of time while the aperture remained open. On the other hand, it’s closely tied to digital photography, for no image has been burned onto film, existing instead as a series of computed and processed numerical formulations.
Morrison’s rich and eclectic image offers influences as far-flung as Vancouver’s skate (and stoner) culture and local architectural history, alongside a sophisticated knowledge of design vernacular. In this sense, Morrison offers a sense of humour to a building that is primarily concerned with effectiveness without much thought for the affect that observers might experience in seeing it. It is with a sharp eye for detail and a subtle visual wit that Morrison merges the two realities with the sublime role of the substation, generating a fresh narrative for an oft forgotten piece of Vancouver’s history.